What should a preacher do in his Sunday sermon? Lecture on the Bible? Talk about Jesus? Tell stories? Comment on current events? Exhort Christians to live Christianly? Should the sermon be relevant? Practical? Gospel-centered?
If we answer, “All (or most) of the above,” another question immediately arises: How can a preacher keep all these gears turning without grinding?
We can dismiss the anecdotal preacher. Personal anecdotes are unobjectionable in themselves, but—there’s no way to say it gently—a preacher who spends the bulk of his time telling stories is guilty of pastoral malpractice. He’s ordained to minister the word of the living God. He should minister it.
Overly polished preachers can distract listeners. Augustine knew that sermons were rhetorical occasions, but he advocated a plain style in the pulpit. Preachers aren’t up there to display style or skill, but to communicate God’s word to the people of God. No one should be confused by a sermon because it’s highfalutin.
The relevant preacher, one hand holding the Bible and the other an iPhone, has more to say for himself, but he’s ultimately a failure too. For the apostles, preaching wasn’t intended to give a fresh slant on what everyone already knows. They announced an event that, according to Paul, no one could know without a preacher.
Of course we want to apply Scripture to the world, but how? Do we measure the world’s square holes and mine the Bible for pegs that will fit? Or do we let the Bible tell us the size and shape of the holes? The latter: Preaching doesn’t try to answer the world’s questions, but announces a new world in which the old questions have to be reformulated or discarded.
You can understand why preachers want to talk about current events. If a sermon goes on about dead bodies rising from graves, the sun standing still, seas splitting in two, a prophet camping in the belly of a fish, odds are the mental-health folk will start sniffing around. Preachers have a choice: They can preach the Bible in all its fantastic oddity and be branded paleolithic, if not insane; or they can assume, with everyone else, that what Google says is true is true, and meet with that mixture of pity, respect, and relief extended to the moderately religious. The second option is the safer one.
For the practical preacher, the sermon is all about real-life application. If he doesn’t prick his congregation’s conscience and leave them with marching orders for the week, he hasn’t done his job.
Redemptive-historical preachers, by contrast, worry that detailed applications can turn sermons into pious how-to lists on marriage, child-rearing, and success in boardroom and bedroom. Some worry about this so fanatically that they refuse to give any practical guidance. Texts that contain specific moral instruction are thus interpreted as general reminders of our sinfulness and our need for forgiveness. They are never taught as guides for life.
The New Testament does not exhibit this concern. Jesus preaches the kingdom, and also tells people, in considerable detail, how to live in it. Paul moves seamlessly from “Jesus the Bridegroom loved the church and gave himself for her” to “Therefore, husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.” Without a hitch, he moves from “You have received the Spirit” to “Walk by the Spirit.”
That apostolic logic was systematized in the medieval quadriga (at its best). According to this scheme, biblical texts have four senses: literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. John of Cassian offered the classical illustration, the city of Jerusalem. Literally, it’s the capital city of the Davidic dynasty. Allegorically, it refers to the church, the city of God and the body of Christ. Tropologically or morally, stories about cities besieged and delivered encourage the faithful to resist the devil’s attacks and guard the gates of their hearts. Anagogically, the biblical Jerusalem points to the new Jerusalem, the new heavens and new earth, that will descend from heaven at the last.
The quadriga helps keep everything in sync. A preacher wants his congregation to learn the Bible (literal), to see Jesus on every page of Scripture and in every moment of life (allegorical), and to teach them how to live in the light of the gospel (tropological). A preacher wants his people to trust God now, and to look forward in hope to Jesus’s return (anagogical). As some medieval theologians put it, the quadriga teaches what we are to believe, what we are to do, and what we are to hope for. In Pauline terms, it encourages preachers to discover faith, love, and hope in every lectionary reading and sermon text.
Guided by the quadriga, a preacher encourages his congregation to find themselves, their world, their circumstances, and their suffering within the world described by the Bible. He teaches them to see Jesus from Genesis to Revelation, and to imagine themselves in Christ, as they hear about Abraham called to leave Ur, Israel between Pharaoh and the sea, Elijah alone against Ahab, Esther in exile, Daniel in the lion’s den, and the three friends in the furnace. Through such preaching, the Spirit transforms the imagination biblically, enabling preachers to perform the magic that Postliberal theologians talk about: The world doesn’t absorb the text, but the text the world.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author of Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor, 2014), Traces of the Trinity (Baker, 2015), Delivered from the Elements of the World (IVP, 2016), and The End of Protestantism (Baker, forthcoming).